By Reece Chambers and Gareth Axenderrie
After two away games that have provided many questions for head coach Warren Gatland, Wales now enter the most important stage of the Six Nations.
But, if Wales are to challenge against England, Scotland and Ireland, they will need to review their first two performances against France and Italy.
First, against France in Paris, Wales appeared off the pace in the first half and ultimately won because of two detrimental French handling errors. George North proved clinical to convert the chances provided by the lacklustre French, but Wales will need to show vast improvements if they are to challenge England this week in Cardiff.
In what was a starting XV containing 10 changes to face Italy in Rome, Gatland probably didn’t get the reaction he wanted from some players he was handing a golden opportunity to.
We will discuss Biggar and Anscombe’s competition for the half back jersey in due course, but what is really striking about this current crop of Welsh players is the opportunity they have to achieve something special.
In a World Cup year, every jersey is up for grabs and the final three games of this Six Nations Championship should be viewed as a great opportunity for each Welsh player to make a name for themselves.
It is often said in sport that competition can only be healthy for a group of players. However, the battle for certain positions across the pitch prove to be limiting Wales of their full potential right now.
The fine balance between competition and good performances is probably something that Gatland’s side has failed to fully get to grips with in the first two weeks of the Six Nations, but playing England next gives Wales the ultimate opportunity to get the best out of this Welsh squad.
Crisis at 10?
It seems odd to talk of crisis following a Welsh win that equalled a record eleventh win in a row. However, the uncertainty of who wears the famous outside-half jersey is reaching a critical stage as the Six Nations reaches a mid-term climax and the World Cup looms on the horizon.
Three different men have worn it during Wales’ recent purple patch, with Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell taking turns to front challenges to a jersey Dan Biggar has called his own for so long. Last Saturday, it was Biggar’s turn to stake his claim at 10.
With Anscombe found wanting in Paris a week earlier, and Patchell blowing hot and cold since suffering a series of concussions, it appeared the stars had aligned in Biggar’s favour. A dominant performance in Rome would have cemented his place in Wales’ most important position once more – ahead of the visit of England this Sunday.
Biggar had an off-day, however. A series of unforced errors and a failure to get the Welsh backline firing were combined with an uncharacteristic lack of game management and decision making, areas where he is so highly regarded.
When you look at the world’s other leading sides, confidence and continuity is associated with the number 10 shirt. When England march down the M4 this weekend, it will be the imperious Owen Farrell engineering everything they do from outside half.
It’s the most important position in rugby, and he who wears it needs to balance knowing when to unleash an attack and when to control the game. These decisions are helped enormously when you add familiarity and consistency, something severely lacking in Wales’ half-back department.
It doesn’t help that Wales aren’t sure of their first choice scrum-half either. Some commentators still believe that Rhys Webb will come home from his French exile in time for the World Cup, but even this only negates any semblance of certainty.
Wales have ridden the crest of a winning wave over their last eleven wins. Their ship now turns to far more challenging waters and they find themselves in a struggle for who will chart its course.
England are the acid test for the turbulent times ahead. Warren Gatland must now put an end to the discontinuity and choose the man he sees as the fittest to steer the ship from here on. If uncertainty continues, confidence and momentum could sink at the worst possible time.